Metal theft won't be stopped by banning cash transactions | Derek Campbell
PUBLISHED January 27, 2012
As a metal recycler, I am directly affected by theft. But stopping cash transactions will only drive illegal trade underground
An estimated 15,000 tonnes of metal was stolen in the UK last year. Half of this was from the metals recycling industry itself. But it is the 7,500 tonnes of metal stolen from railways, statues and church roofs that has caused a public outcry, badly tarnished the reputation of metal recyclers, and is now threatening the existence of our businesses.
To an industry recycling 13 million tonnes of metal a year, 7,500 tonnes is a tiny volume ? though it has a massive impact. Metals theft is a huge issue for our company. Not only do we suffer at the hands of organised criminal gangs, but we are portrayed, alongside other legitimate businesses, as a shabby "Steptoe and Son" industry; the true picture of a modern metals recycler could not be further from the truth.
Metals recycling has evolved in the last 10 years, responding to a raft of environmentally focused directives from Europe. We have invested millions in research, development and new technology to achieve advanced recycling and recovery rates from incredibly complex items such as scrap cars, known as "end of life vehicles". This has enabled us to divert thousands of tonnes of material from landfill.
The industry's rapid change also means that an update to the 1964 Scrap Metal Dealers Act is long overdue. It currently requires us to register with the local authority and obtain the name, address and, if relevant, vehicle registration number of anyone selling scrap metal. The weight, type of material and price paid must also be recorded. The act also provides the police with the right to enter our yards if they suspect any wrongdoing.
We do not accept "foot" trade or anyone turning up in a taxi, to ensure we can take down a legitimate licence plate. If we have not worked with someone before, we ask for photographic identification or proof of address. All our transactions are recorded on CCTV and we inspect every load entering our yards ? turning away or quarantining any suspicious material.
Unfortunately the scrap metal trade is blighted with numerous illegal operators, who have neither signed up to the act nor registered with the Environment Agency. Local authorities can combat these illegitimate businesses, and Environment Agency officers have the power to investigate their sites on environmental grounds. But in both cases there are limited resources to do so, and a forgivable reluctance to enter a potentially hostile environment. This reluctance is enforced by the fact that court fines are rarely high enough to act as a real deterrent. The police could help, but they have to gather enough evidence to obtain a full warrant to enter these illegal operations.
The latest metal thefts have led to calls for a ban on cash transactions. But banning cash payments will force anyone seeking cash for scrap ? however legitimately ? to use illegitimate traders, making policing metal theft even harder. We believe that looking at the legislation and penalties for tackling and closing illegal sites would have a much greater impact.
Our company has many contracts with the manufacturing industry. Cash transactions are a small but important part of our business, and are still a legitimate means of trade for plumbers, electricians and many other small businesses. Setting up the relevant systems and operating transaction fees associated with cashless payments will place an unnecessary burden on metal recyclers. Many cash transactions are for small amounts and are of an ad hoc nature, and this value will be eroded by any cashless system, meaning less value to consumers and small businesses.
The legitimate metals recycling industry is not the perpetrator of metal theft; we act as the last chance to catch these criminals and are working with the police to achieve this. Like other large organisations, we have suffered significantly from metal theft and are undergoing a radical overhaul of our security systems and technology. As with any property, the onus must be on the owner of that material to ensure its security and minimise the risk of theft.